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SALOME’S LAST DANCE(director/writer: Ken Russell; screenwriters: translated from the French by Vivian Russell/from the play by Oscar Wilde; cinematographer: Harvey Harrison; editor: Timothy Gee; music: Ray Beckett; cast: Glenda Jackson (Herodias/Lady Alice), Stratford Johns (Herod/Alfred Taylor), Nickolas Grace (Oscar Wilde), Douglas Hodge (John the Baptist/Bosie), Imogen Millais-Scott (Salome/Rose), Denis Ull (Tigellenus/Chilvers), Russell Lee Nash (Pageboy), Alfred Russell (Cappadodem), David Doyle (A. Nabda), Ken Russell (Photographer/ Cappadocian); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Penny Corke; Vestron; 1988-UK/USA)
“Lives and dies on its excesses.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ken Russell’s (”The Music Lovers”/”Gothic”) outrageous comedy is about Oscar Wilde’s outrageous 1891 French written play Salome that is translated for the movie into English by the director’s wife Vivian. The chthonic one-act play was also turned into a German-language opera by composer Richard Strauss. It has many bright spots and fun campy moments, but wanes at times because its conceit is never far removed from its farting gags and impertinent Jewish midgets act intended to shock rather than to enlighten its audience. Russell’s loose treatment of the work results in an entertaining but tacky ‘play within a film,’ where each person will measure its esteemed value according to their taste for such vulgarity. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the goofy undertaking and found myself easily getting into the madcap gaiety of Russell’s lurid and self-indulgent spoof.

The film opens in London on Guy Fawkes Day, 1892, when a dapper Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) arrives at a high-class Victorian brothel run by his friend Alfred (Stratford Johns). Wilde is accompanied by his lover Bosie aka Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglas Hodge). The celebrated author drops a few bon mots here and there such as “Sex is the theater of the poor.” In this imagined piece, Alfred gets Wilde to shut his mouth for a few seconds by mentioning that his banned play Salome will be acted by the male and female prostitutes in the brothel. In the scheduled London production the best actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, was to star as Salome, but the play was canceled by the Lord Chamberlain on the grounds that it was indecent.

Wilde appreciatively settles down on a comfortable brothel couch to sip champagne, make some further recognizable quips he is known for, fondle an attractive young actor playing a pageboy adorned in gold body makeup and watch with keen interest his play being performed. Bosie plays the part of John the Baptist, while the brothel head Alfred plays Herod.

The alluring actress playing Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott) is first seen as the retiring cockney accented Rose, the brothel chambermaid. She has a smallish frame and is cute rather than endowed with raw beauty. Her Salome character is meant to excite the passions of both Herod and the audience and she does so through spunk, guts, and an ability to move her body as effectively as a slithering snake peeling off some unneeded skin rather than by being erotic. Salome’s the impetuous bitchy daughter of Herodias, who is played by Lady Alice (Glenda Jackson). Herodias is married to her murdered husband’s brother Herod–the king of Judea.

When the rantings of Herod’s chained captive prophet, John the Baptist, are heard by Salome, she becomes fascinated by what she hears being spewed out as an unwavering voice against Herod’s sodomite kingdom and gets curious in a mocking way about the prophet’s message relating to the powers of the messiah. John rants that “through women is how evil entered the world.” The prophet’s banishing words about sex arouses Salome so much, that she finagles the guards to receive permission from their superior to go against Herod’s orders and to bring him up from the dark hole where he’s imprisoned. But the young prophet rejects her advances, which pisses her off and results in John getting flogged by the compliant guards.

The glum Herod before getting ready for his banquet can’t take his eyes off Salome, which is making his unfaithful wife jealous. Salome is urged by the sexually aroused Herod to dance for him, but she plays him off by not saying yes while still leading him on. Herod repeatedly responds in a pleading voice “I’ll give you anything you want, even half my kingdom.” She finally relents to do the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and asks as her favor to have “brought on a silver platter, the head of John the Baptist.”

In this production the overweight king is seen as a buffoon who pines only for Salome, takes insults from his nasty harpy wife without shutting her up, alternates between fretting and gloating how he’s viewed by the powerful Caesar in Rome and fears his prophet prisoner might really be a holy man and if punished might from beyond the grave come back to get revenge on him.

The film lives and dies on its excesses. I thought it lived very well on them, with the strength of the work still in Wilde’s witty and subversive words and not in the bawdy spectacle of the obscene biblical characters carrying on in such a licentious way.

REVIEWED ON 7/26/2004 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”